Healing through story

Month: October 2022

shortfiction24 – fire on ice

Stacy is nursing a grudge against Marie when a brushfire traps them deep in an ice skating pond.

I recently found this story in my older files. I wrote it 30 years ago, in 1992, for a writing class I was taking. The story needs revising, but I share it with you as an example of my earlier work. Enjoy.

Fire on Ice

Bob Gillen

Shivering in the early January cold, Stacey gave her skate laces a final tug. She settled her Walkman headphones down over her dark hair, then pulled on her hat and gloves. She clapped her hands together to get the feeling back in her fingers.

What I don’t need is frostbite, she thought. Not with three more games left to the basketball season. She sighed. Not that it matters much after last night’s game.

A whack on her shoulder knocked her back to the present. Spinning around, she saw the grinning face of her friend Billy.

“You scared me, man,” Stacey said. “How about a little warning next time?”

“If you didn’t have those headphones implanted in your skull, you would have heard me calling you,” Billy said. “Come on, everyone is ready to skate.”

Stacey turned up her collar against the stiff wind. Looking up, she saw a group of kids warming themselves around a fire burning in a battered steel barrel at the side of the pond. One girl stood out from the crowd. Or rather, was encircled by the crowd.

“Marie is there,” Stacey said.

“Yeah, why?” Billy asked. “You still mad at her?”

“Wouldn’t you be?” Stacey siad sharply. “Coach told me to go in the game for her, but she wouldn’t leave the court. She kept pretending she didn’t hear me calling her out.”

“Come on, Stacey,” Billy said. “You don’t know that for sure. Maybe she really didn’t hear you.”

“We only lost by three points. I could have blocked those shots and maybe scored a few if I were in the game. We could have won that game.”

“Stacey, give it up,” Billy said. “Let’s skate and have some fun.”

Stacey watched Billy step out onto the ice and glide over to the group of kids. Stacey followed slowly, working to control her skates. I’d rather be on the basketball court, she thought.

When Stacey got closer to the other kids, Marie called, “Ah, it is Stacey at last. With those things covering your ears, it is no surprise to us that you did not hear us call you.”

I can’t stand the way she talks, Stacey told herself.

“You’re the one with the hearing problem, Marie,” Stacey said hotly. “You sure went deaf when it was time to come out of the game last night.”

“You are angry with me still, oui?” Marie said. Turning to Billy, she continued. “Many times I have said to her that I did not hear her, but she does not believe my words.”

“You heard me,” Stacey said. “I know you did.”

Marie did not answer. Feeling her face get red, Stacey skated out unsteadily onto the pond. Marie sped after her, swerved, and stopped abruptly, showering Stacey’s legs with shaved ice.

“Would you desire to race?” Marie asked.

“Just leave me alone,” Stacey said, skating away again. She made a wide circle on the pond and came back around to where Billy was standing.

“I can’t take her at all,” Stacey said, nodding in Marie’s direction. “She thinks she’s so great.”

“She’s a good skater,” Billy said. “She figure-skated in Montreal before she moved here.”

“She should have stayed there,” Stacey sniffed. Again, she skated off alone.

For an hour or so, she skated up and down the pond, pretending she was sprinting up and down the basketball court. The sun was sliding down behind the woods on the far side of the pond when she skated over to rejoin the other kids. They were watching Marie skate figure eights backwards.

“Anyone want to get warm?” Stacey said. “I’ll build up the fire.”

No one answered. She stepped off the ice and over to the barrel. Throwing a handful of dead braches into the fire, she extended her hands out over the barrel. She wanted the deep chill she felt to melt away. A gust of wind sent embers off into the air like tiny runaway balloons.

“This fire is not big enough to warm us.”

Stacey turned to see Marie dragging over two discarded Christmas trees.

“Marie, what are you doing?” Stacey questioned. “It’s too windy and dry. Those trees will shower sparks all over the field.”

“Do not worry yourself,” Marie said. Turning to the other kids, she called out, “Come, let us get more trees for a larger fire.”

Stacey spun around, got back on the ice, and skated across the pond. Anger burned inside her. She saw a narrow ice path, a frozen drainage ditch, that cut into the woods. She followed the path and came out into a tiny back pond half hidden in the trees. It was only about fifty feet across. Sitting down on a stump at the edge of the ice, she turned her back to the main pond.

Pulling off a glove, she reached into her pocket, switched on the Walkman, and pulled the headphones back down over her ears. The setting sun sank slowly behind the bare trees, sending the braches’ tangled shadows reaching across the ice.

Why is this happening to me? She thought. She scratched at the ice with the heel of one blade. No one likes me any more.

The shadows, like twisted tentacles, began inching up her legs. She imagined them wrapping around her and dragging her down under the ice.

Just as one willowy wisp of shadow crept up her jacket and groped for her neck, a spray of shaved ice stung her face. Jolted, she looked up to see Marie moving her mouth and pointing frantically back towards the main pond.

“Get lost,” Stacey said. “Whatever you’re saying, I’m not interested.”

Marie grabbed at Stacey’s headphones, pulling them off her head. “Feu, feu!” Marie shouted.

“Take your French and get out of here,” Stacey shouted.

Marie took Stacey’s head in her hands and turned her around.

“Fire!” Stacey gasped. A fury of burning trees and brush stretched across her vision.

“Oui, oui,” Marie nodded. “The wind has spread our fire. The fault, it is mine. Come quickly.”

But as Marie started back out to the ice path, the wind drove the flames across the path ahead of her. They flared into the brush and trees on the other side.

Stacey spun in a quick circle looking for a way out. She saw snarled woods ringing the other edges of the pond. Trying to push through the trees ahead of the flames on ice skates would be madness.

Wind-driven sparks showered around them. Stacey slapped at several that landed on Marie’s sweater.

“We are trapped,” Marie said.

The flames began circling the pond.

Marie pointed toward the flames arching over the ice path. “If we remain low, perhaps we can pass,” she yelled, and took a step toward the path.

Stacey grabbed for her to hold her back. She managed to grip Marie’s left sleeve, but Marie yanked it away. Stacey lost her balance and fell, rolling close to the flames. She came to a stop face down on the ice.

The cold against her face reminded her of something. Ice on a bruised leg. Ice cubes. Water.

“Marie, get back here,” Stacey screamed. She scrambled to her feet, moved out to the middle of the ice, and began chipping and hacking at the surface with her skate blades. Marie, turned back by the flames, hurried over.

“Break the ice,” Stacey shouted. “Splash the water on yourself.”

Stacey’s right foot broke through the frozen crust. She cringed as the icy water seeped into her skate. Marie helped her widen the hole in the thick ice. Both girls plunged their hands into the water and sloshed the frigid liquid on their clothing and their exposed faces.

Stacey told Marie to turn around, and she threw water on Marie’s back. Sparks rained down, hissing on the wet clothing and sizzling on the ice.

“Pull your sweater up over your head and get down,” Stacey yelled.

Thick smoke blew across the exposed ice patch, assaulting their nostrils. Marie crouched close to Stacey. Stacey saw her hands and knees shaking violently.

“My friend,” Marie said. “I am so scared.”

“It’s okay,” Stacey said, putting her hand on Marie’s arm. She felt her own knees shaking. 

They clung to one another for an eternity. Finally, Stacey felt a puff of clear, cold air on her face. She raised her head to look around. The fire had now burned its way around the little pond, leaving blackened trees and charred earth behind. Only a few stubborn flames, standing out against the growing darkness, still burned in the thicker clumps of brush.

“Marie, let’s go,” Stacey said. “We can make it now.”

Still shaking, the two struggled stiffly to their feet and moved towards the path.

Stacey caught her foot on a fire-blackened branch and fell. She felt Marie pull her back up.

“Hold on to my waist,” Marie said. “I am the better skater.”

Holding Marie for support, Stacey half-walked, half-skated down the soot-covered ice path. As they reached the main pond, Stacey saw the red lights of fire trucks flashing across the pond.

“I guess we made it,” Stacey said.

“Thank you, my friend,” Marie said. “You have saved us.”

“You were pretty cool yourself,” Stacey said. “Thanks for coming after me. After the way I’ve been acting…”

“Is that not what a teammate is about?” Marie said.

“Yeah, Marie,” Stacey grinned. “That’s what a teammate is about.”


shortfiction24 – James, still invisible

Today I am re-running a story that received positive comments a year ago. Halloween, and James is trying hard to catch the eye of a curly-haired redhead from his high school class.

James the Invisible

Bob Gillen

James the Invisible sat in Science lab, partnered with Dawn, the curly haired redhead. Dawn, the only person he would shed his invisibility for. Dawn, who looked right through him. Dawn, who was currently crushing on Ian, at the lab station next to them.

James dubbed himself The Invisible. No one knew him. No one saw him. And he was fine with that. Until now.

Ian passed Dawn a note. James peered over Dawn’s shoulder at the note. Meet me in the pumpkin patch after school. I’ll buy you the biggest one they have.  Pumpkins. She likes pumpkins. 

That night James the Invisible waited quietly for his parents to fall asleep. His little brother snored blissfully. James pulled on a pair of jeans, a black hooded sweatshirt, and sneakers. Marker pens in several sizes and colors. A pocket knife with a four-finger blade. Ready. James slipped downstairs and out the kitchen door. 

A chill breeze ruffled his hair, the bit that hung out from under his hoodie. A harvest moon hung up there somewhere, hiding behind clouds. James walked briskly to Randall’s Farm, the town pumpkin patch. 

She had been here, he thought. Only a few hours ago. With that clown Ian. Ian wasn’t strong enough to lift a large pumpkin, much less carry it home to Dawn’s house. James thought himself smarter than Ian. He would not pick the largest pumpkin. Nope, he would go for beauty. For symmetry. The pumpkin with the best shape. Like Dawn. Graceful. Cool. A radiant kind of beauty.

James slipped into the pumpkin field at the far end of the property. Away from the barn and the dogs. Away from the lights. He treaded his way down rows and rows of pumpkins. All so-so. None stood out. A bad crop, he thought. Fit only for carving up. But no carving tool would touch James’s pumpkin. No, its beauty would stand out of its own accord.

A dog barked off in the distance. James froze. Waited. The moon remained behind clouds. Not much chance of it showing itself tonight.

James spied the pumpkin. Dawn’s pumpkin. Round, no blemishes or scratches on the surface. He pulled out his pocket knife and sliced off the vine, preserving a three-inch stem. A gentle curve to the stem. Like Dawn, he thought. All gentle curves. No blemishes, like some of the other girls at school. Perfect. 

James pulled a rag from his pocket, wiped the field dust off the pumpkin. It was a beauty. Perfectly round. Smooth. 

James pulled markers from his pocket. Began writing Dawn’s name on the pumpkin. On her pumpkin. DAWN, in a graceful script. Red letters with several green leaves for a flourish. The letters wrapped around half the pumpkin. James smiled.

He waited a few minutes for the marker ink to dry. He could not dare smudge this beauty. He checked his phone. After midnight. Time to move. He lifted the pumpkin carefully. Admired his work. Walked away from the field.

One last thing. Leave the pumpkin in front of Dawn’s door. He knew where she lived. He had spotted her address on a form she had at her desk last week. Easy. Drop it and run. Mission accomplished.

James slipped along the sidewalks in the dark. Not a sound anywhere. No one walking their dogs. No cats prowling about. James found Dawn’s house easily. Number 1215 on Broad Street. He looked right and left, satisfied no one was around. 

As he stepped up to the porch, lights flashed on. Damn. Motion detectors. James put the pumpkin down in front of the door, turned to run, and smacked face-on into a rock pile of a man. The man pushed James back. James landed on his rear on the porch step.

“What are you doing, you little shit?” the voice boomed. “Ready to TP my house again?”

James could not find his voice. He squeaked. Pathetic. But no longer invisible. Nope, quite visible to this huge man.

The man stepped around James and peered at the pumpkin. He picked it up, gazed at the writing on its surface. Looked over at James. The man looked back and forth between the pumpkin and James’s face. Back and forth. And a grin cracked the man’s face. Just a slit at first. Then wider. And wider. Now, almost a laugh.

“You crushing on my Dawn?” the man asked James.

James felt redness flaring up his neck, his face. He could not lift his eyes to meet the man’s stare.

The man put the pumpkin down in front of the door. “What’s your name, kid?” 

A whisper. “James.”

“Okay, James. Here’s the deal. I will leave the pumpkin there for Dawn to find in the morning. I will not tell her who left it. How she finds out, if ever, that’s for you to figure out. Deal?”

James nodded. 

“Now go home before I kick your ass down the street.”

James jumped up and ran off. Mission accomplished. 

And still invisible.


shortfiction24 – too small for the backhoe

Ray and Manny are cemetery workers, digging graves by hand today. The aftermath of yet another school shooting.

A short, short story that helps me deal with the horrors we inflict on one another in our country. I hope it speaks to you too.

Too Small for the Backhoe

Bob Gillen

Ray tossed a couple of shovels in the back of the dark green pickup while Manny lit up a smoke.

They both leaned back against the truck.

“We shouldn’t have to do this,” Ray said.

Manny inhaled deeply. “Someone should burn in hell for what they did.”

The two men gazed at their work. Four small grave sites lined up alongside the cemetery road. Small, not the usual three feet by eight feet. At each site lay panels of plywood. Some held neat stacks of sod. Others were piled high with loose dirt.

The graves were cut precisely, clean rectangular lines on all sides.

Ray turned to walk away. “Would you mind taking the truck back to the maintenance shed? I need to get out of here.”

“You got it. See you tomorrow, man.”

Ray came in the back door of his home, unlaced his dirt-caked work boots, left them at the door. His wife Rosa was setting out a couple of pizzas. She looked at his dirty clothes, his grim face. “You don’t look good.”

“Manny and I dug four graves today…by hand.”

“Oh. Too small for the backhoe.”

Ray nodded. He pulled up a chair at the table.

“Want coffee?”


Rosa reached up to a tall cabinet, pulled down a bottle of scotch. She poured him two fingers and handed him the glass.

She sat. “Children’s graves.”

Ray dipped his head, gazed into his glass.

“The ones from the school shooting?”

His eyes came up, held hers for a long moment.

“That was the next county over. Why your cemetery?”

Ray sipped his drink. “The guy who owns our cemetery donated the four plots…and the coffins.”

Their fourth grader, Gracie, stepped into the room. She kissed her dad. “You look tired, daddy.”

She reached for a slice of mushroom pizza.

“Your dad had to dig graves by hand today.”

“That means kids’ graves, right?”

Ray nodded, grabbed a pizza slice. “How was your day?”

Gracie shrugged. “Pretty boring. We had a sub today, and he repeated everything we did yesterday.”

After supper Gracie went to her room to do homework. Ray skipped his usual after-dinner shower, nestled next to Rosa on the sofa. They both stared at the TV, saw nothing. An hour later, Gracie came downstairs in her pajamas, her hair brushed back in a tight ponytail.

“Did you brush your teeth?” her mom asked. 


“Okay. Sleep well.”

Gracie opened her hand, offered Ray four lengths of red ribbon.

“What’s this?”

“Would you put one ribbon in each grave, please, daddy? Tomorrow, before the people get there for the services.”

Ray squinted. “I don’t know…”

“A ribbon for each kid. They can tie it around their arm when they get up to heaven. That way everybody up there will know, these kids were shot in their classroom. They’ll get treated special.”

A tear crawled down Ray’s cheek. “I can do that. I’ll carve a little groove in each hole and hide the ribbon there.”

Her mom said, “Gracie, that’s beautiful.”

Gracie turned to leave the room. She hesitated, turned back. She opened her palm to reveal another piece of red ribbon, crushed in her fist. She handed it to her dad. 

“Save this one for me. Just in case.”


shortfiction24 – jam the axle

Do you ever dream of being a hero? Tommy Trafficone did. Every day. And then he got his chance.

Enjoy a lighthearted story.

Jam the Axle

Bob Gillen

Tommy Trafficone was born to serve. From his earliest moments, he saw family, friends, others like him, protecting the public. With pride.

Young Tommy grew restless, itching to be called into service. Tommy’s dream came true when someone plucked him up, wrapped silver reflective tape around his neck. This is it, he thought.

Stacks of cones joined Tommy in a truck. The buzz was, an assignment on a local street being repaved. Tommy was set out in a line with other cones. A long line guiding traffic through the construction zone. Tommy stood for days in the blazing summer sun, dust settling on him as construction equipment stripped the old asphalt off the street’s surface. 

Then a day of rain. Fresh again. Feeling proud. Heavy dump trucks rolled in with steaming hot asphalt. As the asphalt was layered onto the street’s surface, a construction compressor rolled rover it, passing up and down the street.

Tommy watched as a young yellow retriever ran out from a nearby house. The dog sniffed around a bit, looked up and down the street, Stay away, Tommy said to himself. as the dog ran out onto the hot asphalt. The dog’s paws got sticky. It could not lift its feet after a few minutes. 

The dog’s owner, a boy of about eight, spotted the dog’s dilemma. He tried waving to the construction workers. Everyone was focused on the street ahead where fresh aphalt was being spread. No one heard the boy or realized the dog’s predicament.

The compressor reversed to pass over the asphalt once again. The operator was looking at the edges of the roadway, ensuring he did not hit the curbing with his roller. Tommy saw that the dog was stuck. The compressor drew closer. The dog was in danger, directly in the path of the roller. Tommy watched from his position along the roadside. 

“I need to save him,” Tommy told himself. He wiggled and nudged toward the dog. One of the other traffic cones pushed him ahead. “Jam the axle,” he said.

Tommy did tiny hops across the hot asphalt, nearing the roller. The driver was still preoccupied watching the curb. Tommy heard the dog whimper.

With an enormous effort, he leaped out alongside the roller. Tommy heaved himself up, jamming himself between the roller axle and the vehicle frame.

Crushing pain! Squealing noise! The compressor jolted to a stop. The operator turned to see Tommy stuck in the roller. Then looked ahead to see the dog frozen in fright in the asphalt. He yelled. The crew ran to rescue the dog. They wiped his paws with oily rags, then used a solvent to rinse off the tarry substance. They told the boy to soak his dog’s paws in cool water for a while. The boy squeezed his dog in a huge hug. 

One of the crew yanked Tommy off the roller, tossed him to the side of the street. A crew supervisor yelled, keep that compressor moving. The roller moved off right away, the operator fearful of compressing the street too much if the roller stayed parked in one spot.

Before the boy took his dog into the house, he waved to one of the paving crew. He pointed to Tommy, mangled in the grass. “The cone saved my dog.” The crew picked up Tommy, wiped him with rags, and set him down on the sidewalk. He was blackened with scrapes, several gouges along his side. The boy ran to his garage, rummaged around, grabbed a strip of blue fabric from his kite, and tied it around Tommy’s neck. “He’s my hero.”

One of the paving crew set Tommy back in his position along the street. He stood  with pride, his blue ribbon fluttering in the breeze, as the other cones whispered, “Welcome to service.”


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